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Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific Marine Protected Areas

In March USGS research ecologist Amanda Demopoulos co-led an expedition aboard the NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer to investigate unknown and poorly known deep-water areas in two marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean.

This article is part of the March 2017 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

Map showing expedition EX-17-03 operating area. Red = cruise track; yellow = PIPA area; green = PRIMNM area.
Map showing the general expedition operating area. The red line is the rough cruise track to and from the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) during EX-17-03. The yellow shaded area is the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. The green outline denotes the boundaries of the Howland and Baker Unit of the PRIMNM. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

From March 7–29, USGS research ecologist Amanda Demopoulos co-led an expedition aboard the NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer to investigate unknown and poorly known deep-water areas in two marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Pacific Ocean: the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Information gathered from this exploration will provide a baseline understanding of the biological and geological resources in PRIMNM and PIPA and will help lead to improved and effective management of these protected areas.

Demopoulos and a team of scientists, engineers, and technicians from the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Temple University, and other partners collected baseline geological, biological, and ecological information from these poorly understood areas. With the help of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer, the team investigated seamounts, atolls, and other deep-sea environments down to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) depth, with most of the effort focused on characterizing deep-sea coral, sponge, and fish communities, as well as the underlying seafloor geological context. The crew also conducted bathymetric mapping with multibeam sonar overnight and during transit between dive sites.

An ROV claw holds an orange sea animal with feathery, flowing arms deep on the Pacific Ocean floor with sand in the background
D2 manipulator jaws are gently grasping the crown of a stalked crinoid (Phrynocrinidae) for a collection. This crinoid species has only been observed in the Celebes Sea, off Indonesia. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Discovering the Deep.

The expedition was part of the "Campaign to Address Pacific monument Science, Technology, and Ocean Needs (CAPSTONE)," a major multi-year effort focused on collecting baseline information on deep-water areas of U.S. marine protected areas in the central and western Pacific Ocean. As a part of this effort, the multidisciplinary team collected data to support priority monument science and management needs, identify and map vulnerable marine habitats, explore the diverse benthic habitats and features, study the geological history of seamounts, and investigate the mineral composition of the seafloor substrate.

Established in 2009 and expanded in 2014, PRIMNM covers approximately 1,269,065 square kilometers (489,988 square miles) of marine habitat, and includes Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands; Johnston, Wake, and Palmyra Atolls; and Kingman Reef. The marine national monument is located southwest of Hawaiʻi and is jointly managed by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Very little exploration or mapping has occurred on the seamounts or seafloor within or around PRIMNM; mapping efforts on this expedition targeted many of the 33 seamounts within the monument and a few of the more than 132 seamounts found in the surrounding area. The PRIMNM is known for its unique geology and geochemistry, rare biological conditions, and the high number of native and unusual species. Data from this expedition will enhance understanding of the biodiversity and ecosystem functions within and around PRIMNM.

The PIPA is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Part of the Republic of Kiribati, PIPA is a no-take marine protected area covering 405,755 square kilometers (156,662 square miles). Designated in 2008, it was the first MPA to have substantial deep-water, pelagic, seamount, shallow-reef, and critical terrestrial habitats.

The Okeanos Explorer offers a unique approach to deep-sea exploration thanks to telepresence technology. The ship transmits a livestream of activities to Exploration Command Centers located around the country; here, shore-based scientists interact with the ship-based crew. This live feed is also available to the public, who has the opportunity to follow the exploration in real-time. Thanks to the internet, science exploration is available to students, expert scientists, and citizen scientists around the world.  

This and other Okeanos Explorer expeditions can be followed here: "NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: 2017 American Samoa Part 2 (Telepresence Mapping)".


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